Saturday, August 28, 2010

Fiddling while the earth burns

The following opinion piece by Australia 21 Director Richard Eckersley was published in The Age, Friday 27 August 2010. Access the original here.

Fiddling while the earth burns
No more 'politics as usual' should mean having enough courage to tackle the sickness of mindless consumption.

Nearly every decade from the 1970s has been declared a decade of reckoning, the time when we must deal decisively with looming national and global environmental crises. And as each decade passes, we postpone the deadline another 10 years. With the failure of the Copenhagen conference on climate change last year, the 2010s are now the critical decade of action.

This means the environmental ''emergency'' will have lasted half a century, or two generations. It is not just climate change that we must address, but also land and water degradation, food security, peak oil, population and biodiversity loss. And it is not that nothing worthwhile has been achieved; it is that our responses have failed to match the growing magnitude of the problems.

We have to accept that we cannot meet these challenges with ''politics as usual'' approaches, which seek to offend no one, yield to vested interests, and require no ''sacrifices'' in our way of life.

Beyond the election commentary about political executions, spin, negativity, leaks, botched or boring campaigns, risk aversion and lack of policy substance, we need also to acknowledge the systemic failure of our politics to deal with our problems. This deep current is largely ignored, while politicians, commentators and analysts focus on the swirling surface eddies.

The failure to act on climate change hurt Labor. But its shelved carbon pollution reduction scheme was a lemon anyway, an inadequate response. Also, it is unclear whether the key to voter disillusion was concern about climate change or the reneging on a core ''moral'' commitment. Both dimensions are important: climate change is a real threat to our future, but it is also an emblem of the wider challenge to our quality of life.

Mental health is another example of systemic political failure. Yes, mental health made the campaign agenda, but the whole focus of debate was on services. There was no consideration of why we face a crisis in mental health.

This is a Western problem, not just an Australian one. New US research suggests a fivefold increase since the 1930s in the proportion of college students experiencing psychological problems, and that more than half of young Americans today suffer a clinical mental disorder by the age of 21. If such findings are true, how are we to respond?

From a deep-current perspective, all these issues - environmental, social and economic - have their source in a world view that sees the central purpose of our society as pursuing ever more material enrichment in order to allow us to consume more. Not only does this put pressure on resources and lead to the financial excesses that produced the global financial crisis, it ultimately lies behind the crisis in mental health.

Evidence suggests rising mental illness, especially in the young, is the result of the cultural emphasis on materialism and individualism, manifest in changes in the family, work, the media, religion, education and diet. One specific factor is a shift towards defining ourselves in terms of our extrinsic achievements, in the external trappings of the successful life, including wealth, status, recognition and appearances.

The shift emphasises goals that distract us from what is most important to our well-being: the quality of our relationships with each other and our world, which contribute to a sense of intrinsic worth and existential certainty. As Goethe warned, things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.

Fixing this situation goes beyond politics; it requires leadership at all levels of society. But politics has a role to play. Politicians and the electorates they serve must have the courage to enact sweeping policy changes that shift the course of the deep current, not just stir up the surface eddies.
It means recognising that economic growth measures progress very imperfectly, that the content of growth is more important than its rate, and that we need to direct economic activity away from consumption for short-term personal gratification towards long-term investment in the social transformation necessary to address all the challenges of our century and ensure our future.
And that will mean radical reforms, such as limiting or banning political donations by corporations and other vested interests, making polluters pay for greenhouse gas emissions through effective carbon pricing, abolishing tax deductibility for advertising to ease the pressures on us to spend and spend, and creating jobs where they are socially needed and useful, not where confected demand dictates.

Neither politicians nor citizens fully grasp the size of the gulf between political priorities and social realities. In an Australian National University poll late last year (when Labor's stocks were high), 70 per cent of Australians said they were satisfied with ''the way the country is heading'' (a political question), but only 24 per cent thought quality of life in Australia was getting better (a social question).

It makes for a volatile situation, revealed these days in how quickly our political leaders disappoint us. The results of the election, with the shift in power to independents and the Greens, might shake loose the rusted shackles of the political status quo and make deep change possible. The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the Australian people want something different from ''business as usual''. Can we achieve something different enough, in both process and policy?

Richard Eckersley is a director of Australia21, an independent, non-profit research company, and a visiting fellow at the Australian National University

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